How the Internet Changed the Face of a Tragedy in Turkmenistan

I reached my apartment in [Abadan]. The windows are blown out, the glass just got pushed into the room… There are people sitting and lying around in the yard; you can’t tell who is alive, who is in shock… There’s a lot of blood.

a resident of Abadan, Turkmenistan, shortly after a deadly explosion in the city

On July 7 a munitions depot exploded in Abadan, a town 18 miles from Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan. The explosion destroyed homes, factories, and schools, and sent people fleeing as blasts continued to detonate and spray ammunition throughout the town.

Turkmenistan dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s rule is often portrayed in the media as a curiosity, but ultimately a harmless aberration of contemporary political models. Though the reality was never that benign, it might have passed for such in times of stability when the government was able to quell the population into living in a closed society by providing a modest standard of living. But the government’s reaction to a tragedy that may have killed upwards of 1,380 people has shaken acquiescence to the regime’s repressive approach.

Following the explosion, Berdymukhamedov’s government acted as the quintessential repressive political and police machine. Authorities evacuated some people to Ashgabat as they tried to enforce a news blackout by reportedly cutting internet and cell phone connections to the area. On July 8, the president made a brief televised statement to acknowledge the explosion he claimed was caused by fireworks, but had produced no casualties or damage.

Later in the day, the president announced an official 10-day holiday for himself and his senior leaders. For three days after the explosion, the government remained silent on the topic and instead clogged the official airwaves with mundane programs on issues like folk dancing. By July 10, the Turkmen authorities announced to an anxious public that an explosion of fireworks and munitions had killed 13 civilians and two soldiers.

By this time, concerned friends and relatives, especially the mothers of soldiers stationed in Abadan, began to pour into the city. They were met by government officials who refused to inform them about the missing or the dead, or hand over the bodies of the killed. Reportedly the government took it upon itself to bury the victims in a mass grave.

The Turkmen government’s reaction was to be expected from a notoriously secretive government that is obsessed with preventing foreign reporters (and its own population) from learning of unfavorable news. But this time the Turkmen public’s reaction was unpredicted and unprecedented in scale. The Abadan tragedy is possibly the first time in the country's internet era when citizen journalism not only broke, but also challenged, the official version of the news—both inside the country and to the outside world. Within hours, posts on social networking sites, blogs, and news sites began to circulate details of the events.

Video and audio clips of the explosions (including footage of rockets) began to appear on YouTube. The messages became more frequent as public dissatisfaction with the government’s account and handling of the casualties grew. People were not only sharing practical information needed in emergencies, but also venting their frustration at the enforced silencing.

Sharing information over the internet, especially concerning domestic events, is not an established, or safe, or simple exercise in Turkmenistan. The government controls the internet and mobile communication by holding a monopoly over the service, monitoring and censoring communication, and blocking access to websites at will. YouTube, for example, is blocked in Turkmenistan. This means that videos of the explosion had to be sent abroad, to a trusted source, who then uploaded them to YouTube.

Central Asian news sites such as Chrono-tm.org and Ferghana.ru are also blocked in Turkmenistan. However, both were receiving updates from the country, including digital photos, eye-witness accounts, and videos. There are just a few methods through which people inside the country can access these sites. It is most likely they circumvented the government by using proxy servers. This highly risky practice can have severe consequences if it is noticed by government’s watchful eye. Nonetheless, enough brave—or simply frustrated—people used various resourceful measures to transform the Turkmen "intranet" (as it has jokingly been called) into the internet.

The level of technical sophistication, willingness to engage, and the sheer amount of information shared were surprisingly high by Turkmenistan’s standard. Though so far this willingness to broadcast and share has been triggered by the government’s obfuscation of its civic duties and disinformation on issues like public safety, there is still a hope that access to the information technology and the desire to share and be truthfully informed is reaching a tipping point that will push to open this perniciously closed society.

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